Whether you’re sipping a bowl of Khao Soi noodles by the roadside in Chiang Mai or enjoying a Michelin-starred Thai meal at a high-end Bangkok restaurant, the memories of those powerful, balanced flavors will stay with you long after yours Departure received the country.
Vilailuck “Pepper” Teigen knows this all too well. Pepper, mother of the model, TV personality and entrepreneur Chrissy Teigen, emigrated to Utah from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region in the early 1980s.
For years she tried to reproduce the flavors from home and struggled to find ingredients in the small American town where she lived.
“When I had Chrissy as a baby, I remember going to a small market,” she told CNN in a recent video interview.
“I was the only Asian in this small town – Delta, Utah – that Chrissy was born and I said, ‘Can you bring bean sprouts and lemongrass, please?’ And they did. But other than that, I had to walk 100 to 200 miles to get Gaprao (Thai basil). ”
Today Pepper lives in Los Angeles with Chrissy, son-in-law John Legend and their two children Luna and Miles. She regularly makes cameos on her Instagram feeds, often in the kitchen, cooks next to Chrissy or her grandchildren, or accompanies them on their travels.
“It’s like having a baby again!” Pepper says about her new book. “The same feeling. I’m so excited and a little nervous.”
The book contains dishes from different regions of Thailand. But Pepper gives some of them their own twist – pad thai Brussels sprouts, anyone? – while including other family staples such as baked potatoes, the first “American dish” she learned to prepare.
“Our family loves to eat,” says Pepper. “So I got my favorites from Isaan (in the book) because that’s where I originally come from. That’s my favorite flavor. And then my family likes to explore some northern and southern Thai foods.”
“Have no fear”
Thai cookbooks can often be intimidating for home chefs, depending on ingredient availability or personal dietary restrictions.
But Pepper knows from experience that adjustments are often inevitable and just wants people to have fun in the kitchen. She is regularly asked for advice on how to make Thai recipes healthier or vegetarian.
Vilailuck “Pepper” doughs
“Don’t be afraid,” she says enthusiastically. “I worked very hard with the help of the writer (Garrett Snyder) to get it. It’s simple and straightforward.”
What wasn’t easy, however, was documenting the measurements for each recipe. Pepper says a lot of what she does in the kitchen is instinctual, so she had to figure out how much of each ingredient she was actually using.
“Everything comes from my head, so measuring, weight … that was the biggest challenge. When I did it myself, I don’t need a prescription – when I needed two tablespoons, I did it without measuring. But I did tested myself. It was almost exactly perfect every time. ”
Explore the taste of Isaan
Pepper grew up in the small town of Nakhon Ratchasima – unofficially known as Korat – in Isaan, where her grandparents were rice farmers.
This region is famous for serving some of Thailand’s greatest culinary hits, including Larb (a spicy ground beef salad) and Som Tum (papaya salad). (See recipe for Pepper’s Roast Chicken Larb at the end of this feature.)
Those bold, intense flavors have always been a part of Pepper’s life. The oldest of five children, she was in third grade when she started helping her mother, who worked in a school cafeteria.
“I went to the market with my mom and came back around 5 or 6 in the morning and was just starting to prepare,” she recalls. “I was my mother’s sous-chef before I went to school. At lunchtime, I had to come down and help her sell like a grocer.”
Pepper believes Thailand’s reputation for food obsession is well deserved. The question “Gin Kao Yung” – have you already eaten – is an integral part of everyday conversation.
“Thais tend to eat all day,” she says with a laugh. “A little here, a little there. Food is everywhere. The aroma of street food hits you as soon as you walk out the door in the morning.”
Although it’s been decades since she left Isaan, Pepper says she needs to eat Thai food once a day – which can be tricky considering how often she’s out with Chrissy, John, and the kids.
“Every time we travel, I pack chili peppers, a croc (a mortar and pestle for chopping ingredients like chilies and garlic), instant noodles, chilli powder, and fish sauce,” she says. “Traveling is very difficult for me because I have to have Thai food.”
Fortunately, she says her Grammy-awarded son-in-law is an adventurous eater who isn’t afraid to try new flavors.
“John is so good!” she says when asked if he knows how to handle spicy food. “He can eat anything with me. He’s a very good sport. He tries everything. When we were back in my hometown, he tried all the Beetles in the Beetle car.”
Pepper admits that it is difficult to travel with her celebrity daughter and son-in-law given the attention they attract, but is honored to have been welcomed so warmly in her hometown – she even became a key to the city Korat granted by local officials.
“I’m so happy that people recognized me,” says Pepper. “From a little girl who goes to market every day to a mother … and look at me now.”
Introducing her grandchildren to Thai flavors
When visiting Thailand, Pepper says she must always have a bowl of boat noodles.
When asked what is the first thing to eat when she gets off the plane in Bangkok, there is no hesitation.
“Ahhh, me and Chrissy have to get boat noodles!” she says, referring to kuai tiao ruea – small bowls of beef or pork noodles with a hearty broth, accompanied by herbs and vegetables.
The name is derived from the original vendors who once paddled through the canals and rivers in and around Bangkok, cooking steaming hot noodle bowls right in their boats. Today they are also served in restaurants, but you can still enjoy the classic, floating version.
While Chrissy may now be a huge fan of Thai food, Pepper says it hasn’t always been.
In the intro to her book, she notes that as a child, her famous daughter always wanted American foods like grilled cheese and pizza. But as Chrissy got older, she started asking about all the Thai dishes she’d cooked and eaten with pepper as a kid.
Pepper’s grandchildren, on the other hand, already have their own Thai favorites, which are included in the book.
“They love my food! They always ask about it and I like to do it, I’m so happy. Luna advised me this morning: ‘Tell them I love your joke,'” says Pepper, sharing the advice her five-year-old granddaughter gave her what to discuss during the interview with CNN.
Pepper says her fried chicken is a hit too, and Miles, who is almost three years old, especially loves her ribs – with lots of garlic.
These days, Pepper no longer has to travel hundreds of miles to get ingredients. She says she has a garden full of fresh produce while other things are easy to find in Los Angeles so she can cook all of her Thai favorites at home.
And when the Thai-American makes her final journey as a cookbook author, she says Chrissy has been a great source of support and comfort along the way, and encouraged her to share her recipes with the world.
“She’s just so proud of me,” says Pepper, breaking into her distinctive smile.
Recipe: Pepper’s Fried Chicken Larb
Pepper fried chicken coarse.
Jenny Huang / Clarkson Potter
FOR THE DRESSING
– 2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
– 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
– 1 teaspoon of light brown sugar
– 1 tablespoon of toasted rice powder, store-bought or homemade
– 1 teaspoon of roasted chile powder
FOR THE LARB
– 6 fried chicken tenders (approximately 12 ounces), sliced or 3 heaping cups of minced fried chicken
– 1 medium-sized shallot or ½ red onion, halved and thinly sliced (approx. ½ cup)
– 4 thinly sliced green onions (about ¼ cup)
– ¼ cup wrapped coriander leaves
– ¼ cup of shredded mint leaves
– Cooked sticky rice or jasmine rice
Prepare the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, rice powder, and chili powder until everything is well mixed. Put aside.
Make the Larb: Preheat the oven to 400 ° F. Spread the chicken on a sheet pan and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until heated through.
In a large bowl, combine the warm chicken, shallot, green onion, coriander, and mint and slowly pour the dressing over it as you toss. Mix carefully but thoroughly. Try the spices and adjust as needed. The larb should be tangy, salty and a little bit spicy (like me).
Serve immediately with rice.
Book photos Copyright © 2021 by Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, from Random House.